By Noah Goldberg
The Spiders head across town Tuesday night for the Capital City Classic against the VCU Rams. Both teams are sitting at 5-2 in the conference, and with Richmond owning head-to-head against URI and playing a much lighter schedule the rest of the way, this one could have major implications for conference tournament seeding.
VCU is coming off of a narrow victory at La Salle on Saturday. As heavy home underdogs, the Explorers trailed the reigning A-10 champs just 65-62 with 3:21 remaining.
Behind an inconsistent offense, which has reemerged in flashes behind freshman sensation Bones Hyland, the consensus preseason conference favorites have fallen short of expectations.
Mike Rhoades’ team has dropped to bubble conversation after spending several weeks in the AP Top-25. In fact, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put the Rams in the “first four out” of his most recent NCAA Tournament bracket, with Richmond in the “next four out.”
The struggles of Marcus Evans, whom many pegged as the A-10 Player of the Year over the summer, have been glaring on the offensive side of the ball. Evans has been forced into a playmaking role since coming to VCU after being an effective scorer at Rice, where he averaged 20 points over two seasons. His 98 offensive rating doesn’t crack VCU’s top-5, he is second in the team in TO% and he still leads the Rams in usage rate.
As Wayne Epps Jr hinted at on the first episode of the Spider Scoop, the emergence of Hyland, especially at the point guard spot, could allow Evans to rekindle his offense in a primarily off-ball role.
Conversely, the Spiders have exceeded expectations this season. Picked to finish 6th preseason, Richmond is locked in a three-way tie for third place in the A-10 and owns the only conference win against 2nd place Rhode Island.
Based on current standings, Richmond plays a top-5 A-10 team, other than VCU, just once more this season, a road game against a Duquesne team that just lost to UMass. With a light three-game stretch before the Capital City rematch (George Washington, La Salle and Fordham), the Spiders will be well rested when they play their rivals again in February. This makes Tuesday a must win for the Rams.
Junior Nathan Cayo had a strong outing against the Flyers on Saturday, and there’s a good shot he’ll be the x-factor Tuesday. When the Spiders lost by 21 in the Siegel Center last year, Cayo led Richmond with 18 points but went 10-19 from the free throw line. The rest of the team shot just 4-8.
Cayo focused on reworking his shot mechanics over the summer, and now he’s seeing the fruits of his labors. A former sub-60% free throw shooter, he’s knocking them down at a 79.6% clip and more importantly, leads Richmond with a 42.6% free throw attempt rate.
Aside from Marcus Santos-Silva, who will be on Grant Golden all game, the Rams don’t have anyone strong enough to matchup with the 225-pound Cayo in the post. Rhoades clearly has been effective as a defensive schemer, leading his team to an 88 defensive rating, but trying to converge a plethora of smaller players on Cayo will to lead to fouls. Sending him to the line may have worked last year, but it won’t this time around.
Golden isn’t setup for a bounceback game after his worst performance of the year against Dayton. Junior Marcus Santos-Silva posts an absurd 83.3 defensive rating, leads the Rams in PER and at 250lbs he has one of the quickest second jumps in the conference.
As good as he is under the basket, Santos-Silva shoots just 56 FT% and will struggle against the quickness of Richmond’s back court. Defensively, Golden and Cayo will need to be physical in the interior and make him earn it from the free throw line. Offensively, look for Mooney to draw Santos-Silva onto the perimeter and use screens to switch him onto the faster Spider guards.
This nationally televised matchup will be a dogfight between two rivals who sit on the bubble of March Madness, vying for a top-3 seed in the Atlantic-10. Tip off from the Siegel Center will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, and you can catch the action starting with coverage at 6:30 on 99.5 & 102.7 ESPN.